'My husband's a paedophile, but I still love him'
The wife of a man jailed over child abuse images tells of her pain and turmoil since his dreadful secret was exposed
The knock came just before dawn. Helen’s husband, Robert, stumbled out of bed to answer the door, but when he didn’t return, she ventured down herself to find him collapsed on the stairs.
One of the plainclothes police officers gathered in the hall showed her their search warrant. “[Robert] just kept saying: ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’,” she recalls. “I was left in no doubt that whatever they had come for, he had done.”
Grandparents of two in their 60s, the couple had been married since Helen was 18. She had only just joined him in retirement when their family was riven by what she can only describe as “an earthquake”.
Its aftershocks are still being felt. It’s unclear how Robert appeared on police radar, but after an exhaustive, humiliating search of their home (“He told them where to find what they were looking for, but they went through everything, even my underwear”) he was charged and eventually sentenced to two years in prison for possession of images of child sex abuse “in the thousands”.
The picture is obviously murky, but by any available measure this is one of the world’s fastest-growing crimes. UK government figures, released late in 2017, revealed a 700% increase in the number of indecent images referred to law enforcement agencies since 2013.
Police now arrest an average of 400 people every month for viewing child abuse material. Most are men, but many confound other stereotypes. “We see men of all ages and backgrounds, family men and respectable professionals,” said West Yorkshire’s assistant chief constable Catherine Hankinson. The 149 adults they arrested in 2017 included four company directors, two solicitors and four tech professionals.
Some seem to consider themselves perpetrators of “victimless” crimes and, while sharing an image of someone under the age of 18 carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years, the sheer scale of the problem means fewer than a quarter of the 2,528 people sentenced in the UK in 2017 were jailed.
Police chiefs recently suggested the “horrifying” surge in numbers should prompt a national debate about whether men viewing images of child abuse should face prosecution or be given counselling, an attitude that British solicitor general Robert Buckland is keen to counter.
“It’s the gateway,” he told The Telegraph last month. “It can lead to more horrendous crimes. People are making money out of this; children are being abused [for these images].”
Then there are the other “invisible” casualties of these crimes: offenders’ own families, who, with the recent rise of vigilante paedophile hunters, live in constant fear of reprisal.
“The spotlight is often put on wives and partners: ‘Surely they must have known? I would have known if my husband was doing this’,” says Deborah Denis of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, a charity dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse.
“It leaves them incredibly isolated because they often don’t feel they can talk to even their closest friends or their family.”
For Helen, the discovery was akin to a bereavement. “I felt very much like a widow,” she says. “I went through huge grief, you almost feel as if he died.”
The length of Robert’s sentence was a reflection of the volume and nature of the images in his possession. She was devastated to find that some featured infants younger than the couple’s then preschool-age grandchildren.
Driven by competing, desperate needs to talk about the impact of what her husband had done, yet conceal her identity, she agreed to be one of two wives followed over 12 months for a remarkable documentary, Married to a Paedophile (“Though I don’t like the title,” she would like to make clear.)
In a TV first, actors, including Abigail McKern, seamlessly lip-synch the women’s real-life audio accounts to startling effect, allowing these rarely heard perspectives to be delivered in familiar territory. Helen’s story is, at times, hard to understand, as we see her attempts to forgive her husband for crimes she can’t countenance.
“I’ve loved him for 44 years,” she explains. “You can’t just switch that off.”
She’s not sure the documentary fully conveys the anger she felt – “I would be shaking; how could he have done that?” – but it seems to have ebbed and flowed, in waves. “I’m very clear that I hate what he did, but I don’t hate the person,” she says. “I was afraid all the way through that he would commit suicide. That was my biggest fear on the day the police took him away.”
She had to call their two sons to break the news. “I wasn’t sure I was ever going to see him again.”
Though she still struggles with the extent of Robert’s betrayal, she believes his behaviour was symptomatic of depression: “We’d lost a lot of close family members, quite unexpectedly; we lost children ourselves and that was very difficult for us; he got made redundant. He was very, very bitter about that. He ended up a very angry man.”
She visited him in prison every three weeks – seeing them as “dates” – and sent regular e-mails and photos of their chickens; he wasn’t allowed to receive pictures of the grandchildren. Robert was released in 2017 after serving eight months, placed on the sex offenders register for 10 years and given a sexual offences prevention order, which means he is subject to monitoring software on all Internet-enabled devices, including his phone, and random spot-checks by police.
Crucially, under the terms of his release, he is not allowed to sleep in a house with his grandchildren. Helen looks after them regularly in the family home, so she rented him a flat a few minutes’ drive away, “just far enough that hopefully no one will know him”.
Though there are no legal restrictions on Robert seeing the grandchildren otherwise, his daughter-in-law has so far prohibited it altogether. “There are some details that came out at the trial that she is absolutely haunted by,” Helen explains. “One of the videos that he looked at was of a breastfeeding baby who was taken from his mother [and abused].” Since the cameras stopped rolling, she and Helen’s son have separated over differences in their reactions to Robert’s crimes; the family fissured even further.
For her part, Helen seems tormented by the dots she might have joined over the years: she had known Robert had an interest in adult porn for most of their marriage, and he had always been something of a hoarder, but it never crossed her mind that the two would coalesce in such a terrible obsession. “I said to him: ‘I know you’re going to look at [porn] but I don’t want to know, don’t show me’. Later on I agonised: did I give him permission? Had I been a better wife ... I’ve learnt it’s a very common feeling.”
The couple are now officially separated, but see each other daily and have no plans to divorce. “I still feel married,” Helen says. Besides, “I don't think I would ever fully trust someone ever again. If he could do it, I can’t believe any man is trustworthy. I went through a painful phase of looking at each man that I met – ‘Do you do it? Do you?’”
• Some names have been changed.
– © The Sunday Telegraph